I’m reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s new biography of Thelonious Monk, and while I might wish Kelley were a more graceful writer, there’s no question that Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original is the best and most thorough book on the bebop master we are ever likely to see. Kelley was given unprecedented access to Monk’s relatives as well as private recordings that captured the man in his most unguarded moments, and he made the most of that access. This will be the go-to book on Monk for the foreseeable future.
Though he reveals that Monk was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and often dosed with Thorazine to control his mood swings, Kelley also does a great deal to demolish Monk’s wild-man-of-jazz image and allow us to see the disciplined, technically adroit, and thoroughly schooled musician who earned the respect of the most accomplished players in jazz. I particularly appreciate the attention Kelley plays to Monk’s penchant for wordplay in his song titles. “Crepuscule with Nellie,” which Monk performs in the clip above, uses the French word for “twilight” to evoke some quiet time with his wife, Nellie. And then there’s “Epistrophy,” one of Monk’s best-known tunes:
Back when I started listening to Monk, still credulous about all the space-cadet stories built around his eccentric performing style, I assumed “epistrophy” and “crepuscule” were portmanteau words cooked up by the whacky genius who wore funny hats onstage and danced around his piano during solos. Then came an expository writing class in which I learned that epistrophy involved a word or expression repeated at the end of a series of phrases or verses. In music, it also signifies a phrase repeated during a cyclic composition. The literary and the musical, all wrapped up in one catchy tune. It was the first thing I learned from listening to Monk, but not the last. Reading Kelley’s book, I learned a lot else besides.